Get ready for the greatest light show on Earth: the aurora borealis. Here's where to view the northern lights in Canada.
If you’ve been thinking about going somewhere special to view the northern lights, you won’t want to put it off much longer. The aurora borealis will soon be at its best and brightest as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year weather cycle. That’s when sunspots, solar flares and solar eruptions become more frequent and intense, which leads to the best chance to observe spectacular aurora.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Centre, "the updated prediction now calls for Solar Cycle 25 to peak between January and October of 2024, with a maximum sunspot number between 137 and 173," rather than its earlier prediction of peak activity in July 2025.Parks Canada, Curtis Matwishyn
“We're pretty close to the peak right now,” says Kathryn McWilliams, who studies space weather as the director of SuperDARN Canada, the Canadian partner in the multi-national Super Dual Auroral Radar Network. “We've seen a lot of activity. I don't know if it will be that much more but it's very active right now.”
Perhaps you’re wondering what solar activity has to do with the northern lights. The answer is everything. The sun continually fires off energized particles, some of which stream towards the Earth. This solar wind, as it’s called, energizes electrically charged particles which build up within our planet’s magnetic field. “And then at some point, the magnetic field can't hold them anymore,” explains McWilliams, using the analogy of a water balloon that gets full and bursts. “And just like that, everything collapses and you see the aurora.”
What you’re seeing is the release of energy as light. The charged electrons from space have collided with atoms in our planet’s upper atmosphere, transferring their energy and “exciting” the atoms. CTC/NWTT
The aurora comes in different colours, depending on what kind of atoms collide with the electrons. In my experience, having lived in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for nine years, most aurora borealis are green which means electrons are colliding with oxygen atoms about 80 to 120 kilometres above the Earth. Red aurora borealis are produced by collisions between electrons and oxygen atoms even higher up. Nitrogen atoms cause a thin purple band at the lower edge of the green aurora.
Although these collisions are happening far above us, the lights sometimes feel as close as fireworks and are even more mesmerizing as they shimmy across the night sky like rippling curtains.
However, it must be noted that even at solar maximum, there’s no guarantee of aurora activity. Adding to the mystery is the fact that “you can still see spectacular aurora when the sun is quieter,” notes McWilliams.CTC/NWTT
Still, wouldn’t it be great if scientists could predict space weather as accurately as meteorologists predict weather on Earth? McWilliams says our current forecasting of space weather is on par with weather predictions on Earth in the mid-20th century. “We're making progress... there are efforts to build big models and project forward but it's a huge, huge challenge,” says McWilliams, especially given that their ‘laboratory’ is the entire solar system.
NOAA offers short-term aurora forecasts on its Space Weather Prediction Centre, updated daily, showing the likelihood of aurora tonight and tomorrow night over North America. But even if scientists can’t yet provide longer-term forecasts of when the aurora will be visible, they do know where you’re most likely to see them. And that’s under the aurora oval.
The northern oval (there’s one in the southern hemisphere too) is a large band around the north magnetic pole where electrons from the sun gravitate and create aurora. The oval grows larger as solar storms get more intense. This explains why the aurora borealis can sometimes be seen very far south. During a particularly “stormy” period in 1958, for instance, people as far south as Mexico City saw them.James MacKenzie/NWTT
Fortunately for Canadians, “we have the most land under the aurora [oval],” says McWilliams, noting that most of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut sit under it. According to NOAA, the best latitudes are between 60 and 75 degrees, when “aurora can be observed more than half of the nights of a given year.”
The other things you need to keep in mind are the weather (because clouds block the aurora), the number of night-time hours (the aurora is only visible in the dark, so there’s no point in visiting northern latitudes in summer), and the absence of artificial light which interferes with seeing the aurora.
The tourism office that promotes travel to the Northwest Territories claims the Territories has “the world’s best aurora,” partly because the skies there are usually crystal clear due to the naturally low humidity. It claims that if you visit ‘in season’ (mid-August to the end of September or mid-November to early April), you have a 98 per cent chance of seeing the lights over three nights.J.F. Bergeron/NWTT
Whitehorse in Yukon, Churchill in Manitoba and Iqaluit in Nunavut are also under or near the aurora oval, have long, dark winter nights and have airports with daily flights from southern Canada, making them easy to reach and relatively affordable.
When asked to suggest a place she would go, McWilliams doesn’t hesitate: “Prince Albert National Park.” It’s about a two-hour drive north of Saskatoon where she lives. “Not many people know about it, and it's just a beautiful place to go.”
You might think that studying the solar wind that produces the aurora borealis would take some of the joy out of seeing them, but McWilliams says not so. “It’s just so beautiful. It's overwhelmingly beautiful.”